Socialism Today            Socialist Party magazine

Bush’s energy review dead-end

GEORGE BUSH’S plan to build 1,300 new power plants over the next 20 years will give a disastrous twist to the spiralling problem of global warming.

The great majority of the new generating stations will be coal and oil-fired, the biggest culprits in the production of carbon dioxide, the most dangerous greenhouse gas. The remainder will be nuclear plants, which are ‘environmentally friendly’ according to Bush, because they do not contribute to global warming. This one-sided claim, conveniently ignoring a string of nuclear-related disasters and near disasters, could herald a new and dangerous departure in the thinking of the strategists of capitalism in a pro-nuclear direction.

Bush’s energy policy is in reality a payback to the big oil and energy companies who were the largest backers of his presidential campaign. Even the short-term justification of an imminent power shortage outlined in the plan, authored by vice president Dick Cheney, formerly head of the giant Halliburton oil equipment and services company, is bogus. The California power cuts result from the deregulation of the electricity industry and the ensuing market-induced anarchy, and the second factor, rapidly-rising oil and gas prices, will almost certainly be temporary as the world recession deepens.

The White House decision to ditch the Kyoto agreement to cut greenhouse gases was clearly linked to the energy policy Cheney was cooking up, despite the lip service paid by Bush to renewable energy in his proposals. The new administration is right in one respect however, that of exposing the hypocrisy of the Clinton Democrats on this issue. The previous US government fought to water down the Kyoto protocol until it was virtually meaningless. It ended in the farce of carbon emission ‘trading’, a scheme where the Western powers bought the quotas to produce greenhouse gases (at very reasonable prices) of the former Soviet block countries and added them to their own. This would have resulted in no new emissions cuts since the Eastern quotas were based on output figures compiled before the economic collapse in the region slashed energy usage, and the associated polluting gases, by over 50%.

The return to nuclear power generation signalled in the Cheney plan was partly justified on the grounds that it is an energy source that does not produce greenhouse gases. Apart from ignoring the other deadly environmental dangers linked to nuclear power, the Bush/Cheney argument is totally inconsistent since they not only challenge the link between global warming and CO2 output, but also the evidence of a rise in world surface temperatures at all. This is despite the overwhelming empirical data and the opinion of the vast majority of scientists to the contrary.

Nevertheless, the strategic shift to nuclear power by the US, may indicate a dim awareness, despite the current Republican pay-off policy to Big Oil, that something will have to be done to prevent a climate change disaster. Nuclear would fit this bill because it would entail less investment than wind, wave or solar energy and therefore hit profits the least.

Bush must be hoping that the disasters at the US Three Mile Island nuclear power station in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 have been forgotten. There were many similarities between the two, although a meltdown of the reactor core was narrowly, and largely by chance, avoided in the US incident. Estimates at the time of Chernobyl put the likely death toll at 100,000, mainly from cancers occurring over the subsequent decades, due to the radio-active cloud that spread round the world and the contamination of the water table as the melting nuclear pile bored into the earth’s crust. In addition to this horror there have been thousands of children born with genetic defects, which will be reproduced in future generations. The supporters of nuclear energy claim that the chances of an incident are very small, but Chernobyl and Three Mile Island demonstrate that the consequences of an accident are so catastrophic no risk is acceptable.

The second aspect of nuclear technology conveniently not mentioned by Bush was the disposal of nuclear waste. No safe method has yet been devised to store the plutonium that is an inevitable by-product, despite decades of research. The waste material has a half-life of 100,000 years, meaning it will remain radio-active for at least that time. The US claims it will have a safe site ready in ten years and the EU in twenty, but these assertions are highly doubtful. They are happy to condemn future generations to try to deal with the problem.

The US abandonment of Kyoto, even if it was largely cosmetic, and its promotion of fossil fuel and nuclear energy, will give impetus to the debate in the anti-capitalist movement on the environment and sustainable growth. The refusal of Bush and the multi-national corporations he represents to admit even that global warming exists will increasingly call into question the role of US-dominated global capitalism, if environmental disaster is to be avoided in the coming decades.

All the governments of the world and the big corporations continually recite the mantra of sustainable growth, without having the intention or capability to make it a reality. Their inability to provide free market solutions is partly explained by the huge scale of the problem. An analysis was done recently based on the so-called Commoner-Ehrlich equation (I=PCT)* which is used to predict the conditions necessary for sustainable growth. The assumptions built into the calculation were for zero growth in the industrialised countries (The North) and a four-fold increase in consumption in the underdeveloped world (The South). This in itself would hardly begin the process of transforming these societies; for instance, per-capita incomes would remain only one sixth of the North and the problems of poverty in the North could not be overcome either. Nevertheless, T in the equation, the overall environmental impact per unit of consumption, would have to be reduced by 90% to cut the environmental impact, I, by half, a figure that would produce sustainability. T can be reduced either by technical change, such as using non-polluting technology and increasing labour productivity, or by changing consumer behaviour, for example, switching from private to public transport. T also depends on the manner in which resources are deployed, that is, the social relations of production.

What are the chances of achieving even this very modest sustainable outcome for the world’s poor on the basis of the market system? The human, scientific and technical resources to achieve this exist today; the question is can they be deployed effectively using the market, in particular will the necessary investment be found? The free market solution, a Carbon Tax and other taxes on polluting firms, would be a non-starter. The US accounts for 25% of all greenhouse emissions so a tax would fall mainly on its firms, slashing their profits in relation to overseas rivals. This raises the question of who would collect the tax? The US government is the political representative of the big polluting corporations and would clearly resist any pressure to move in this direction. Another objection to the ‘make the polluter pay’ idea is that it would be possible to find a thousand loopholes through any legislation. It is often difficult, if not impossible, to exactly pin down the environmental costs of the actions of an individual firm or industry.

Is another possibility appealing to the capitalists’ long-term self-interest, since it is true that the degradation of the planet would not be in the best interests of capitalism in general? To pose this question reveals one of the fundamental contradictions of the profit-driven market system. No individual company or country, even the USA, is in control of developments. The global juggernaut of capitalism has its own inner logic and needs, the chief of which is the pursuit of profit. Driven by competition, each firm will act to maximise its profits and will expect ‘its’ government’s support against international rivals. The fact that, in the abstract, they do not want to destroy the planet in the process is of little consequence. This law will continue to apply if attempts to control the environment by social democratic intervention are made, rendering it as futile, in the long run, as the free market approach.

The flaws in the market system mean the whole debate on sustainability is inevitably moving in the direction of a serious debate on alternatives and in particular the possibilities of democratic socialist planning on an international basis. This is beginning to be reflected in the academic discussions on the issue, a harbinger of the more general rehabilitation of socialist ideas. Marxists must be in forefront of the debate in the anti-capitalist movement on this crucial question because we have the only credible solution.

Pete Dickenson

* The Commoner-Ehrlich equation has the form I=PCT, where I is environmental impact, P population, C consumption per head, and T is the overall environmental impact per unit of consumption. Caution should be used in reading too much into the results since the variables in the equation all depend to an extent on each other, and the relationships between them are often not fully understood. This is particularly the case for the implied variables in T which include consumer behaviour and the rate of technical change. However in the case looked at here, the general trend and scale of the problem are clearly shown.


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